Dimitris Itoudis: On coaching creativity

Feb 10, 2016 by Dimitris Itoudis - Moscow, Russia Print
Dimitris Itoudis: On coaching creativity

His biography says that Dimitris Itoudis made his Euroleague head coaching debut last season, but CSKA Moscow's boss is nothing less than one of the most experienced pros in his field. He was working the sidelines since age 20 in both Croatia and his native Greece before joining the staff of Zeljko Obradovic at Panathinaikos Athens in 1999 as the lead assistant coach. Their five Euroleague titles in the next 13 years together made the Greens the competition's most successful team in the Final Four era. Last season, his first at CSKA, Itoudis took the team to the Final Four. Along the way, he has coached many creative players, and how to best take advantage of their talents is the subject he talks about in this edition of Coaches Corner.

I have been working with creative players throughout my coaching career. There are players who create their own shots and players who create for others. I can think of Peja Stojakovic when I was with PAOK, and Fanis Christodoulou at Panionios before going to Panathinaikos with Dejan Bodiroga and Dimitris Diamantidis and others, and now at CSKA with Milos Teodosic and Nando De Colo. One thing to understand is that if coaching creative players sometimes gives some difficulty to their coaches, you can double the difficulty they give to the opposing coach. I like to use creative players who participate and justify their ideas and take the hot potato at the key moments of the game. The guys who say: "Give me that ball. I'll do it for me or for my teammates. I'll find a solution." The other thing I tell creative players is the game is not all offense: it's defense, as well, because in order to score, you have to possess the ball. And to possess the ball you have to rebound, steal, make blocks, cause turnovers, contest shots. Whatever you do, you have to possess the ball before you can be creative with it, so keep in mind that balance between offense and defense.

My philosophy is that the first thing I have to do as a coach is help my players become better. All the players in the world, no matter how good or creative, have plusses and minuses, advantages and disadvantages that you, as a coach, want to improve or to hide a little. But the most important thing is to turn a disadvantage into an advantage. That's a process. Of course, I am not going to have, I have never had and never will have, free basketball. I am not a fan of free basketball. We do have great individuals, but they know they have to fit in the system. The system will adapt to them when they do the things that have to be done in the system. I have a motto: Nobody is better than the system. Neither me nor the player: nobody. Of course, individuals are important, but this sport is a collective sport.

Take for example Milos Teodosic, who can see two passes ahead at all times. I can let him do that, and it means there will probably be turnovers, yes, but basketball is a game with turnovers, as well. But if I have a creative point guard who can play and sees my philosophy, who can play his way within it and understand the moment, the circumstances, the score, the opponent, the momentum and the rhythm... then that's all we need. Coaching is not just Xs and Os. It's a lot of talking and a psychological approach to players. They know they have quality, the players, but everyone needs leading. We are here as coaches to lead them, to remind them how to adapt to the system and how that makes them better. No one is better than the system. Thank god I have and have had players who know that. You're going to have confrontations, yes, but what it's about, that criticism, is that you both have high expectations.

I remember when we signed Drew Nicholas for Panathinaikos. We had tried to get him before. I had talked to him when he was in Benetton Treviso. We wanted him, but he had another offer at Efes and he decided to go there. For Efes, Drew was the top scorer in the Euroleague, but after we won the triple crown with Panathinaikos, we finally signed him, and when I talked with Drew, I asked if he regretted his decision. He said it would be nice to be a triple-crown holder and was ready for a new challenge. I said that he had done a good job in a system at Efes that played for him, with a lot of ball screens and so on for him to shoot. But here at Panathinaikos, I told him, it would be different. We had a lot of good, creative guards - Diamantidis, Saras, Spanoulis - who would play individually, just like him. But it was a question of having to adapt to the system and give what you had to the system. That was a big transformation for him. The system would work for him to get shots, but he had to also work in the system to make passes to others.

That's what we do at CSKA, too. When you have creative guards, on or off the ball - like Navarro or Carroll coming off screens - they become a point of emphasis for the other team's defense. Someone spends hours working on ways to contain that creativity. And the defense has to work a lot against them. So I am definitely going to give my guys isolation plays, pick-and-rolls, hand-offs and other things to put ball in their hands at the right moment. When we have no primary or secondary fastbreak, if you see our point guard, he's looking at me. I have most of the play-calling, but I trust them to make the call, too, as long as it's according to the time and the game plan and who we want to attack in certain situations.

We do practice things like alley-oops and behind-the-back and no-look passes. That happens either individually, when our guards and bigs work separately, or in three-on-three, four-on-four and five-on-five drills. We also work on how we can expect our opponents to react to our creative guards. You have to figure on your opponents preparing as well as you do to contain a little your creativeness. So you have to practice those things so that they are not taken away from your players. I have nothing against those kinds of plays, but sometimes, to be able to do them, it depends on timing, momentum, spacing and other factors. We coaches get mad sometimes if something that is supposed to be good turns bad.

If you see our Euroleague games, there are at least two or three back-door cuts per game. What we try to do on every play is have several options in case something is contained or stopped by the other team's defense. You can then go to plan B and plan C in the same offensive set. The plays and sets we run are based on the players you have at that moment on the court. But again I have to repeat that it's also about who the opponent has on the court, too, and the weaknesses and preferences of both teams. It's not about giving some players more or less freedom. Definitely, though, it's about what players show in practice, which for us is the real picture. When you see things happen in practice that you like, of course, you let them do those things in a game. On those back-door cuts, for instance. You know it's based on eye contact between Teodosic and Nando De Colo or Nikita Kurbanov. You can't call that, but they can practice it within the different options of our set plays. And as a coach, you prefer that to running a 24-second play and at the end taking a bad shot.

On defensive side of this subject, in basketball you have to take your risks somewhere and creative players make that difficult. So, according to the stats and the numbers, you analyze where the risks can come from and you choose. We say that as a team, we have to be like a chameleon and ready to change colors and defenses during the game. The other team has prepared, and your game plan might be demolished and crushed immediately. So you start the game taking risks that you choose. Creative players like Sergio Rodriguez, who see the game well, might recognize right away if your help is coming from here or from there. So then you decide to double-team him and risk passes, or to play him flat and give him the shots. As a coach you have to take risks all the time. But you get ready for them by teaching your team how to be ready to execute several plans in games and several plays and options, according to what is happening on the court.

Among the most creative players I have coached is, of course, Dimitris Diamantidis. I remember when he first came to us at Panathinaikos. We were in preseason camp in Zlatibor, Serbia, and he was showing us a lot of dribbling and passing. I said OK, but you've got to make some points when you're alone, too. He wanted to make everyone else happy before him. But that's not all there is to do. We wanted him to use all of his skills. You sometimes have to remind those types of creative players to be aggressive. We want to play aggressive basketball whether we are running screens, stacks, pick-and-roll or finishing with isolation in the end. You have different sets and different timings, but in the end, you are creating your game according to the players you have. I would also say that we, as Euroleague, have to protect this part of our product. We have very talented players like this on many teams, great players. And like the NBA protects Stephen Curry, who's not the best defensive player, but is an asset for the league, this is basketball and we have to protect what these creative guys do because that makes our game special, too.